Tag Archives: learning Chinese

The Monolingual Expat

While back in Canada, chatting with strangers, I mentioned living in Taiwan. They asked if I speak Chinese. [Actually the question was whether I speak Thai, but that’s a story for another day]. I replied, “Well, define Chinese,” baffling the table. So I explained, “Yes, I do speak Chinese. I speak shit Chinese.” They clearly assumed I’d simply confirm my fluency. There is a reasonable expectation that long-term expats in Taiwan would have passable Chinese. Often that is not true.

Monoliguisticexpatitis is an English-speaker’s disease. Since English is the world’s lingua franca, it is too easy to be understood everywhere. It’s hard to imagine any reasonably large urban center or tourist destination where—when you’re recognized as a foreigner—people wouldn’t speak English. It’s detrimental to language learning. In Taiwan’s large centers, surviving with just English is easy. Often it’s hard to get Taiwanese people to speak Chinese with you.

Opportunities to speak Chinese are not as widespread as you’d assume. If you’re new to Taiwan most your Chinese interactions are probably with service people. These exchanges are often too simple to help with more than the basics, or descend into the surreal. My favorite occurs when the young counterperson freaks as I enter an American fast-food chain. Stone-cold terror. “Oh God my English is so bad. I can’t spell and have no idea when to use the auxiliary verb—what am I going to do? I should have studied harder for that test.” It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does I  like to put them at ease right away with my smooth Chinese ordering, because I’m a nice foreigner: 請你給我一個1號餐. Usually that draws a bug-eyed gawp. Well, these things happen. So, ever the charming foreigner, I’ll repeat myself in passable Chinese, 請你給我一個1號餐. The steadily widening eyes by this point usually look like those of a drunken Russian getting kicked in the nards on YouTube. It begins to feel like a passion play, but it’s not clear which of us is Christ. Around this time the server will skitter off to find the manager. On their return, I get a third chance for some real-world Chinese practice, 請你給我一個1號餐. The manager, older, wiser, and unintimidated by my blonde hair, will probably recognize Chinese. These interactions have minimal positive impact on Chinese learning. 

The opposite is also common. Sometimes you’ll meet Taiwanese dying to speak English with a native speaker. It’s almost impossible to get them to interact in Chinese. It is unnatural to continue speaking Chinese while being replied to in English. You’re being socially awkward. It can be demoralizing for the language learner. It feels like they think  your Chinese is inadequate.  Dealing with a conversation partner who’s either too scared or excited is not good for language learning.

Non-English-speaking Europeans tend to have better Chinese skills. Partially it’s that many come from multilingual countries and are used to interacting in their non-dominant language. But also, not many Taiwanese are going to speak to them in French. If their English is poor, they have to speak Chinese. For them, Taiwan is an immersive Chinese language experience. I’d never say it’s good to be French, but in this one way it’s advantageous.

While Europeans are often multilingual, English speakers tend to be monolingual. Partly it’s an accident of geography. English developed in England, relatively isolated from other languages. Insularity seems to have bred linguistic self-centeredness. Whether for historical reasons or pure arrogance, many English speakers have the attitude that:  English is my first, and God willing, last language. [What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? English].

The stereotypical English attitude to other languages is a factor in some English-speaking expat’s monolingualism. Also, many of us—despite living in Taiwan—inhabit remarkably English environments. There’s a reason English teachers tend to have terrible Chinese. We spend our workdays speaking English in class, taking breaks with other English teachers, and interacting with staff in English. It is an entirely English work environment. Many other technical experts in Taiwan exist in a similar English bubble. It’s bad in many ways. It definitely makes Chinese fluency difficult. For these expats, learning Chinese in Taiwan has little advantage over studying Chinese in their home countries.

There is one last problem. Motivation. Sometimes comprehension is undesirable. I don’t want a clear idea what my in-laws are saying. When they’re talking I turn my brain to the Charlie-Brown’s-teacher setting: wah, wah, woh, wah, wah. Likewise, sometimes you just don’t want to know what your wife is saying. Nothing good can come from it, just more chores and probing insights into how you should change—monolingualIsm has its advantages.

The article is intended as an explanation—not an excuse. It is wrong to live in Taiwan and not make an earnest effort to learn the language. Personally, I do study and speak Chinese, but am embarrassed at my level of fluency.

The Great Chinese Language Scam Revealed

I have a theory. I do not believe that Chinese is a tonal language. It is alleged that Mandarin has four tones: 1st tone (a high flat tone); 2nd tone (a rising tone); 3rd tone (a dipping tone, where the tone falls and then rises again); and, 4th tone (a falling tone). I don’t think so.

If Chinese really were tonal that would mean that at some point in prehistory the language’s inventor had to be sitting around choosing words for his new language, and decided that it would be smart to assign an awful lot of unrelated items/actions essentially the same word. Imagine the scene: Our ancient scholar sits under the banyan tree naming things brought by his assistants. First they bring him some rope, he looks at it judiciously, and says, “I shall call this ma (麻) [hemp]”. Next the assistant leads in a horse, the great sage deliberates, and calls it ma (馬). Just then a toad hops by stalking an ant, and the sage looks upon it and names the toad ma (蟆). When the toad catches the ant, the sage exclaims, “Look that ma just ate a ma (螞)”, giving predator and meal the same name. Just then the sage’s mother comes to see him. He looks upon her with filial eyes and calls her ma (媽). But, then she spoke angrily to him and asking why he was lying in the tree’s shade with chores still to be done. “Ahh, ma why must you always [thinking on the fly the scholar decided his mom’s actions were best described as, you guessed it] ma (罵) [scold] me so?” In a moment of bold inspiration he ended the sentence with ma (嗎) indicating to his mother that he was asking a question. Quite proud of his achievements he decided to take a little morphine, or what he fondly called ma (嗎), and drifted off to sleep.

Notice that in the story there are different words in English for the different things. That is logical and expected. However, in spoken Chinese they’re all the same word. The characters are different, but they developed much later than the oral language. I randomly chose the ma sound, but could just as easily have used shi, xi, chi or any other Chinese sound.

It’s ludicrous on the face of it.

Obviously the language’s oral indistinctness causes limitless opportunities for miscommunication. For example, if I’m saying something about miandian am I talking about Myanmar or a bread store. Who knows? Or, if I’m mentioning koujiao, am I referring to the corner of the mouth, a blowjob, or garnering your wages? Well, it’s hard to say. Maybe you can get it from context—is the penis pointing towards the corner of the mouth or scraping the tonsils? Obviously this is no way to make a language.

If we were to accept that Chinese is tonal, then we’d also need to accept Ma ma ma ma, ma ma ma as a valid sentence. That’s problematic. I would contend that no one would be thoughtless enough to create a language that way. Even if one person were that crazy, certainly no one would adopt such a language. It would be a dead language before it got started. It would be lunacy for tones to play a central role in expressing meaning, therefore there are no tones in Chinese. Q.E.D.

What I think is happening is that the Chinese are playing the greatest practical joke in history, and it is Andy Kaufmanesque in its surreal brilliance. Nobody expects it from the Chinese. Everybody thinks they have no sense of humor. Turns out they’re freaking hilarious!

I see them giggling behind their hands as foreigners try to pronounce Chinese with ridiculously exaggerated tones:

Foreigner #1: NIIiiIII  HHhaaAO MA?

Foreigner #2: HHEEennNN HHhaaAOO,  NIIiiIII  ne?

Foreigner #1: HHEEennNHHhaaAOO 

Chinese Man #1: Aiyah, listen to those two foreigners.

Chinese Man #2: What a pair of silly tits. Seriously, who’d speak like that?

Chinese Man #1: I can’t believe we’ve been pulling this for millennia.

Chinese Man #2: It never gets old.

If you’re a student of Chinese, just when you start making progress with tones, someone will crank up the joke and tell you that you’ve been doing the tones all wrong. They’ll claim that if a 3rd  tone word is followed by another 3rd tone word, the preceding word changes to 2nd tone. If there is a series of 3rd tone sounds in a row, then each in turn changes to 2nd tone, until the final 3rd tone word, which reverts back to 3rd tone.


should actually be

nNiiII  HHhaaAOO


They’re pulling your leg. It is an obvious practical joke. Who is going to keep track of how many 3rd tones they will be saying in a row, and which will be the last in the series? If that much calculation were required while speaking no one would ever be able to produce a sentence.

Even children are in on the joke. Ask a young Chinese person to teach you a tongue twister sometime. They may teach you a genuine tongue twister like:

吃 葡 萄 不 吐 葡 萄 皮 ,不 吃 葡 萄 倒 吐 葡 萄 皮

Chi pu tao bu tu pu tao pi, bu chi pu tao dao tu pu tao pi

This will have you tripping over the words. But, if the child has a sardonic sense of humor he might suggest this tongue twister:

媽媽騎馬。 馬慢, 媽媽罵馬。

Mama qi ma. Ma man, mama ma ma

Not a terribly tough “tongue twister” is it? Even having never spoken Chinese, you should be able to say this one very quickly. It is almost all the same word. See, this joke operates on many levels and can be appreciated by a diverse cross-section of Chinese society.

Well played my Asian friends, well played.

A Low-Context Dude in High-Context Places

The following article continues from “The Unified Field Theory of Culture Shock” (here) by giving specific examples of differences between Chinese and English. The contrast between high- and low-context languages is at the core of the linguistic differences outlined here.

There are a lot of different languages, but only two styles of communication: high- and low-context. Asian languages tend towards the high-context end of the continuum, English toward the low-context side. There is a fundamental difference in the linguistic objectives of Chinese and English. Chinese is designed to obfuscate. The language aims to hide the speaker’s exact meaning, to obscure what’s in their hearts, and to conceal their thoughts. English’s raison d’être is to communicate as succinctly, directly, and clearly as possible exactly what you mean, want, feel, or think. These different goals explain the differences in structure and usage between Chinese and English. Much cross-cultural miscommunication is rooted in these differences.

One complaint of Chinese-speaking students of English is that there are “so many words”. In English there are many words with only slight gradations in meaning or feeling. A simple example would be the Chinese word kan (看) meaning look. English probably has over fifty words with a similar meaning; peer, peek, leer, stare, glance, glimpse, gaze, gape, scan, ogle, view, observe, etc. These words are used in daily conversation. Since English seeks to be as explicit as possible, it is necessary to have a plethora of words conveying fine deviations in meaning. Chinese has 看. They don’t need such a finely defined spectrum of meaning as precision isn’t the goal. [Before some pedantic student of Chinese tells me there are Chinese translations for every possible English word meaning look—I know that. However, those words are not in common usage. As you start trying to exactly translate the fine variations of English meaning you’re soon down a rabbit hole, looking at poetic terms from the Tang dynasty or something similarly ridiculous].

In Chinese, rather than trying to exactly outline fine differences in meaning, everything is chabuduo yiyang, 差不多一樣 or “about the same.” Chinese verbal communication is absurdly sloppy from an English perspective. For example, I had a student take a couple days off school because she’d hurt her 手 shou (hand). When she returned I was surprised to see her hand was fine, but her elbow (臂肘) was broken. When I asked her about this, she gave the very Chinese reply: chabuduo yiyang. How is a hand even remotely similar to an elbow? If you’re willing to accept that a hand and elbow are more-or-less the same thing, then the difference between glance and glimpse is virtually meaningless. The specificity of English words is a source of annoyance and confusion for Chinese speakers. There are endless examples of how inexact Chinese can be. What blew my mind when first arriving in Taiwan was ta (他, 她, 它) meaning he, she, and it respectively, but in oral communication being pronounced the same. How can you even begin to have a conversation if you don’t know if the person you’re talking with is referring to a pal, hot babe, or a lump of poop? How this pronoun confusion could be used to conceal endless shenanigans is obvious and indeed the whole point. I could go on forever, but I’ll just give one more example, specifically the way Taiwanese use comfortable/uncomfortable. If you ask a Taiwanese person the reason they were late, missed school, didn’t want to meet, etc. the most common answer would be, “I felt uncomfortable.” That’s the most disingenuous answer possible—what does it mean? Did you have a cold, the flu, broken bones and contusions, a heart attack, a psychotic episode, depression over a breakup, or just general lassitude? Can you imagine missing work and telling the boss it was because you felt uncomfortable? That kind of equivocation doesn’t fly in English, but it is at the core of Chinese communication.

Often Chinese-speakers, when speaking English, will seek to make English as obscurantist as Chinese. English doesn’t work that way. When you try to hide your real meaning in English, it is obvious and you are quickly perceived as a liar. Failing to be reasonably direct and frank is impolite. Chinese is the opposite—of course. Stating your meaning too directly and clearly in Chinese is rude. The example I give my female students is that if they have a boy chasing them, they are free—in English—to tell him directly that though they appreciate the attention they do not share his romantic feelings. The guy may not be happy, but it is polite and not particularly hurtful. It conforms to English’s goal of stating as clearly as possible what is in your heart. In Chinese, to be polite, you need to circle around the truth to the point of miscommunication and befuddlement. English guys misunderstand what females are trying to say all the time, so pity Chinese dudes. Nightmare.

These linguistic differences are not too important until your language skills reach a high level. If you’re a beginning Chinese-speaker, the listener will be happy you’re speaking their language, but as your skill increases, the expectation that you will have internalized the language’s logic increases. If you speak Chinese fluently, but construct your dialog with English logic it can be off-putting. In extreme cases being semi-functional in Chinese is better than having excellent Chinese without the commensurate cultural awareness. I knew a linguistically gifted diplomat who spoke phenomenal Chinese. He worked hard at it. Unfortunately, he was not similarly gifted when it came to perceiving and studying Taiwanese culture and history. In fact he quite strongly objected to the notion that the Taiwanese were anything other than white Canadians speaking a different language. He continually, inadvertently, caused grave insult with his tactless (English style) of speaking Chinese. Ironically it would have been far better if his Chinese was poorer, the Chinese listeners would have forgiven him any perceived slights as just a lack of language skill, but since his language ability was excellent they concluded that he was ignorant or rude.

My Taiwanese wife has brilliant English. She works for the Canadian government in an English-speaking environment, with native English-speaking bosses. She learned English entirely in Taiwan and despite near native-speaker fluency, her thinking remains Taiwanese. Sometimes she’ll come home from work and say something like, “Today my boss said, ‘blah-blah-blah,’ and then he said, ‘blah-blah-blah.’ So, what does it really mean?” Her assumptions are wrong. She is thinking in Chinese, looking for a deeper hidden meaning behind the words. I have to explain that if the boss said “blah-blah-blah” then he meant “blah-blah-blah”. That he is in fact trying to convey precisely what he wants, feels or needs, in as direct a manner as possible. The only thing that might make him inexact is a failure of language ability.

As hard as it is for Chinese-speakers to adjust to English precision imagine English-speaker’s problems learning Chinese. Direct talk is relatively easy to learn once you realize that is the goal. How do you learn to artfully circumnavigate precision in favor of conveying a whiff of meaning? The Chinese tendency towards circumlocution becomes manifest in formal situations, when dealing with the older generation, or talking to someone of a higher or lower social position. One example can be seen in the marriage negotiations between myself and my wife’s family (“Marrying Taiwanese”). Honest to God I have no idea how I got through it. My father-in-law has some good qualities, but the man seriously believes that he lives in the Qing Dynasty. Before the formal engagement negotiations, he called me to his house to discuss issues he wanted clarified before the formalized engagement negotiations that would involve my representatives, the matchmaker, Venus’s family, financial negotiations, etc. I had trepidations. My Chinese sucks, it is functional at best. During this interview he talked a lot, and to my credit I understood virtually every word—but, I had no idea what he was saying. First he would talk in circles, seemingly drawing closer and closer to making a point, but just as he was about to clearly state his concerns, he would jump to another issue and beginning circling around it, eventually almost saying something before leaping to some other nebulous point. I was expecting an intense discussion about the nature of love, commitment, family, etc. Instead he circled around in the clouds talking about arcane, random, unrelated points. I understood the words—but, I had no idea what they meant. At the interview’s end, I asked Venus (who was there the whole time) to clarify what had been said. She didn’t know, but said not to worry about it, as no one understood him. Why bother having language if no one (even native-speakers) can understand? That’s my English bias; get to the point, state it clearly, and move on. Chinese is not that way.

Chinese writing is likewise imprecise compared to English. I’ve taught academic writing to Chinese students for a couple decades, they have a really hard time accepting how directly English should be written. The notion of a clear and direct thesis statement being expounded at the beginning of an essay is antithetical to Chinese language’s logic. Often Chinese students will do weird things when writing in English. Sometimes they’ll write a pretty decent essay clearly proving something, only to say in the last sentence, “Despite the overwhelming evidence I’ve outline, I believe the total opposite.” End of essay. It is enough to give you vertigo. It is surprising how often students try to build suspense, have a plot twist, and denouement in their academic writing. They’re seeking literary beauty more than clarity (very Chinese style). It is hard to explain that simplicity and clarity are beautiful in English and the core of academic writing.

I also edit academic papers for Chinese-speaking professors seeking publication in English journals. They have good grammar, but retain an inability to organize their writing into a coherent argument. Most fail to clearly state their thesis. If they have one, it is left to the reader to guess what it might be, as they do their best to circle around it, and with what they undoubtedly perceive to be great artistry try to subtly lead the reader to their point. It is English with Chinese characteristics—and it is God-awful. At its very best you get a descriptive essay suitable for newspaper publication. More typically it is seemingly random musings loosely related to the topic. The professors are doing the same thing as the students. They are trying to create that artistic Chinese argument, where like the great sages of yore, they gently nudge the reader in a certain direction. Despite having tremendous English ability, they’ve totally failed to connect with English’s low-context nature. To some degree academic writing is an unnatural fit for Chinese. The fine gradations of meaning and careful explications necessary are the realm of low-context languages. English is great for scientific writing, academic writing, contract writing, technical writing, anything requiring clarity. Chinese is wonderful for poetry and literature, where the language’s vagueness adds to its ability to convey feeling and beauty.

Chinese-speakers forced to forsake Chinese’s ambiguity can reacted negatively to English meticulousness. I have a Taiwanese lawyer friend who does international negotiations. She hates dealing with English lawyers because of “their anal need” to clarify, define, and explicitly state everything in writing. Were the contract in Chinese there would be no way to achieve such succinctness. She prefers Chinese because in-between the lines, in Chinese’s indefiniteness, she can wiggle around with an eye toward helping her clients. Where everything is so cut-and-dry there is no room for “lawyering”.

The differences between high- and low-context languages affect communication in ways that are hard to grasp. Many people with advanced second language skills fail to appreciate the structural differences between their native and secondary languages, the results include culture shock, misunderstanding, and unintentional rudeness. This is particularly important for long term expats since as your language skills advance there is an unconscious expectation in the host culture that you’ll communicate in a culturally appropriate manner. The onus is on us.